The Social Business

Category: Social enterprise (page 1 of 32)

Leeds – a good place to build your own home?

Housing minister Mark Prisk was in Leeds today to announce a series of measures to encourage more people to build their own homes.

He was visiting LILAC – an inspiring development of strawbale housing in Bramley, West Leeds – which today welcomed its first residents.

You’ll know we’ve been working hard on Leeds Empties for the past year or so. Ultimately, our interest is in ensuring that more Leeds people have access to decent housing. Sorting out empty homes has a big part to play in making that happen. But it clearly doesn’t offer the whole answer. We need to build more homes.

But I can’t be the only person who sees volume house builders as part of the problem. We’re told we need to Get Britain Building. We need to relax planning regulations. We need to make it easier for people to buy new-build homes. Just let the big boys get on with the job – they’ll sort it out.

Really? Now I’m not going to suggest that volume house builders don’t have a role to play – they clearly do. But I’d worry if we were going to rely on them alone to sort out our shortage of decent housing. Don’t their developments, often at scale, often on greenbelt land – keep running into local opposition? Do their estates of identikit housing inspire? Do they help us to make a significant dent in our CO2 emissions – 25% of which come from running our homes? And, perhaps most crucially, are many of their homes affordable, by even the most loose of definitions of affordable?

A self-build home in the Field of Dreams at Findhorn, Scotland

This is why I’m interested in how we can encourage more self-build. In the UK around 10% of homes are self-build. Across Europe, the figure is around 50%. In Germany and Austria it’s more like 80% (all stats from this programme). So it’s clear there’s scope for more of us to get involved in building our own homes.

What might be the benefits of more of us building our own homes? I’m no expert on this – but from what I’ve seen with my own eyes – in places like this and this – self-built homes can, first and foremost, be beautiful, inspiring places to live. That’s not too much to ask is it?

But they can be much more than that too. Designed well, they can offer opportunities for significant reductions in the environmental impact of our homes – both in the construction and running of the homes. And, when people decide to build together, there can be benefits with regards to a greater sense of community – LILAC, for example, is based on co-housing principles and the development includes a shared house. Might co-housing – much of it self-built – help tackle what’s been called Britain’s loneliness epidemic?

And then there’s affordability. We live in a pretty modest 3 bed semi in Leeds. About £1 in every £3 we earn goes to pay a mortgage on a house that I like, but I’d struggle to say I love. And we, of course, are amongst the luckier ones – the generation below us has got little chance of being able to afford a decent home.

Strawbale Cottage in Howden, East Yorkshire

Now there are bigger things at play here – but self-build housing surely has to help. LILAC, for example, has affordability at the heart of its approach and its ownership model. And, particularly where people group together to buy materials and do some work themselves etc you can imagine there are opportunities to do things more cheaply than house builders who are driven primarily by profit.

So how do we make sure that LILAC isn’t the last inspiring self-build community in Leeds? A starting point could be a meeting that’s being organised by Leeds City Council in May. Hopefully that’ll bring a number of people together who are interested in building their own homes. I’ll be going – it might take us four or five years before we’re ready – but I’m keen to start exploring whether our next home could be one we build ourselves – with others.

Getting together in May might also start us thinking about what might need to happen in Leeds to make it easier for people to build their own homes. Clearly access to land is key. Getting your head round planning regulations, I presume, can be a barrier. It’ll be interesting to see what role the Council – and others – could play in this – for example by identifying appropriate parcels of land – perhaps smaller pieces of land that commercial developers aren’t so interested in – and offering them on good terms to self-builders.

Personally, I’d like to see us trial an approach whereby volume house builders are offered planning permission in return for selling – at a fair price – a percentage of their land to self-builders. Might that be a good way to get more decent, green, affordable homes for Leeds people?

We need to make sure LILAC is a starting point to inspire others to do something similar elsewhere in our city, not somewhere we all visit, dreaming of what could be.

And finally, a self-build house in Findhorn built from an old whisky mash tun

A day with Bristol Together and Triodos

It’s been a busy few days. After Monday morning’s inspiring session with Muhammad Yunus I spent the afternoon with 150 others at the Empty Homes Conference.

The highlight for me was listening to Dan from Revolutionary Arts – the man behind the Empty Shops Network who brings a refreshing perspective to the use of empty space. His talk challenged me to think about empty shops – up to now we’ve steered clear of shops and stuck to homes. And I think that focus is still correct – but we should at least look into ways to make the most of empty flats above shops. Which, in some cases, may mean looking at new uses for the shops themselves too. There are people who know much more about this stuff in Leeds than we do – so we’ll be contacting them soon.

From London, on to Bristol for an event at Triodos Bank. The event at Triodos was run by Bristol Together – a social enterprise that’s been up and running for about a year now – and recently won a start-up of the year award. They provide work for ex-offenders by buying, renovating and then selling empty homes.

One of the intriguing things about them is that they’ve managed to raise £1.6 million through a bond issue organised by Triodos. The bond offers a return of 3% to investors – and is repayable in full after 5 years. Investors can also benefit from Community Investment Tax Relief – which turns a 3% return into an 8% return.

There’s a mix of investors in Bristol Together – from institutional investors such as the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation through to so-called High Net Worth Individuals. A couple of the individual investors were there, and spoke about their experience. They were clearly pretty engaged investors – both were on the Board of Bristol Together – and one commented that of all his investments, the Bristol Together Board is the most impressive he’s part of. It made me think I need to widen my network to include a few more thoughtful High Net Worth Individuals…

The £1.6m investment gives Bristol Together the cashflow to act as a cash buyer in the housing market – buying houses at auction and through Estate Agents. They’re also keen to explore a closer relationship with the Council which might see them find a way to buy unwanted properties from them. Clearly part of the return for investors comes from this ability to move quickly to secure a sale.

They reckon around 90% of the work to renovate a home is done by ex-offenders – with usually around 5 or 6 people working on each house. Obviously more difficult tasks – tanking a cellar, sorting out the gas supply– will be done by specialist traders. But much of the rest is done by the people for whom Bristol Together exists.

Each renovation is co-ordinated by a Project Manager. As you can imagine, the Project Manager is key to keeping the job on track and on budget. A big part of their role is juggling the desire to be supportive to people finding their way back into the world of work with the need to get the job done as planned. Not an easy task, but it sounds like they’ve recruited well.

Bristol Together are an ambitious bunch. They plan to scale up their work in Bristol whilst also expanding into other areas. Next up is the Midlands – with a Midlands Together business currently in development. A number of potential partners for the new venture were there – and it sounds like that’ll be something that develops over the coming months – accompanied by a £5 million bond organised by Triodos.

My main reason for making the trip down was to see if there was potential to develop something similar in Leeds. In the short term, I’d think it’s unlikely that Yorkshire Together will happen – as the next step is to develop in the Midlands. But it certainly felt like something we should explore in the medium term – particularly as there appears to be a strong commitment to working to developing each Together with local partners. We’ll be watching the development of Bristol Together and Midlands Together closely, and we’ll obviously do all we can to help them to identify appropriate local partners if they do decide to work in Yorkshire.

Then there’s the investment angle too. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m sceptical about much of what’s happening in the world of social investment. But today it made sense to me. Engaged investors, who have a good relationship with a social business that has a business model which can generate financial returns alongside social returns. The financial return (3% plus tax relief) seemed fair enough to me. And Triodos – well known as a values-driven organisation – felt like a Bank you could do business with.

So could we explore something similar in Leeds? Perhaps with Triodos, or perhaps with another intermediary? What do the investment opportunities look like in Leeds? Could we develop a bond which allowed social ventures in Leeds to act as cash buyers, to do up homes in ways that brought lots of extra social benefits, to ex-offenders, long-term unemployed people or whoever? And could we find a few High Net Worth Individuals of our own?

If you’ve got any thoughts on how to take things further, it’d be great to hear from you.

Social innovation Grameen style: “Look at ice-cream. The cones are edible.”

I’ve been in Nottingham this morning for a breakfast event hosted by Capital One with Professor Muhammad Yunus, the man often described as the Godfather of Social Business.

Prof. Yunus is best known for Grameen – who in turn are best known for offering banking services to poor women in Bangladesh. He’s in the UK for a couple of days – with Friends of Grameen President Liam Black by his side – to talk with a wide range of people – including the UK Government – about social business and, more specifically, the problems the bank is currently facing thanks to the unwelcome intervention of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Prof. Yunus made it clear, with the answer to Liam’s first question at this morning’s event that he didn’t want to “waste time” talking about Grameen’s current problems. Instead he wanted to focus on social business – so that’s what I’ll do here too.

It’s easy to feel a bit starstruck in the presence of someone who has achieved as much as Muhammad Yunus. He’s an interesting mix of zen-like calm and steely determination. This isn’t an ivory-towers academic who’s dipped his toe naively into the world of business. I get the impression you wouldn’t mess with Professor Yunus. But his generosity, warmth and humility are immediately apparent too.

Liam introduced Prof. Yunus as a man who’s “best known for asking questions that turn things on their head.” This for me was the theme of the talk, and something that in my own little way I try to bring to my work too. Many of his questions, of course, concern poverty and its causes. “Poverty isn’t created by poor people. It’s externally imposed. It comes from outside.” A statement such as this challenges – and immediate invites questions. Who/what is imposing poverty? How do we respond?

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

An illustration of the conversation between Muhammad Yunus and Liam Black

His social business journey began in 1976, as an academic who, in his words, was “growing tired of teaching theory whilst people died outside.” He looked around in Bangladesh – and saw big problems with high-interest moneylending. So he decided to be begin lending money to the poor – the poor who most people believed (still believe?) aren’t worthy of banking services.

From those humble beginnings, Grameen now runs more than 50 social businesses – many in collaboration with multinationals – Danone, Veolia, Pfizer, Tesco and more – in a range of markets from microcredit to mobile phones to yoghurt. One of the things I find most fascinating about the Grameen approach is that none of the businesses distribute profit – yet many are run in collaboration with some of the world’s most successful profit-generating corporations.

That challenges me in a number of ways – with regards to my attitude towards who our business collaborates with – and some of my thinking about profit. Yet I’m not saying that Professor Yunus’s attitude towards taking dividends from social business (he suggests business is either selfish – profit maximising – or selfless) isn’t problematic either. But it’s a useful challenge….

He talked quite a bit about Grameen’s collaboration with Danone – a relationship I know a fair bit about having spent a couple of days with Danone at an Innovation Lab in Paris a few years ago. Together, Grameen and Danone sell high-nutrition yoghurt – with the double benefits of “health through food” (Danone’s mission) and plenty of jobs for people selling the yoghurts.

He told a story of product development. Execs arrived from Paris with sample products – in, of course, plastic pots. Cue one of Professor Yunus’s questions.

“Why is the pot plastic?”
“Because that’s what we sell yoghurt in around the world.”
“We haven’t set up a social business so that we can litter Bangladesh with plastic pots.”

They went away, and came back three months later – pleased with themselves of course – with a biodegradable, corn-starch pot. Professor Yunus looked at it, and asked another series of killer questions:

“Is it edible?” No? Why is not edible? People are paying good money for this product – why can’t we produce a pot they can eat? We eat ice-cream cones – so why not yoghurt pots?”

That’s innovation in action, right there…..

But is he – and Grameen – being used by multinationals hungry for good CSR stories and access to bottom-of-the-pyramid markets? Markets that are easily accessed by partnering with a social business with the incredible reach that Grameen has in countries like Bangladesh? Yunus responds to this question – which is asked all the time – primarily by journalists – with mock surprise. “They’re using me are they? Well, I never knew. I thought I was using them….” He’s delighted to be “used” – if being used means that a social business is developed that helps people out of poverty. But as I suggested earlier, Yunus is no naive Professor – I doubt you’d get far if your aim in collaborating with Grameen was purely selfish.

Too soon it was all over, and I had to dash to get my train to London, to catch the second half of the Empty Homes Conference and for a series of meetings to help us to develop Leeds Empties – an enterprising, collaborative approach to tackling the waste of empty homes so that more people have somewhere decent to call home. I travel down inspired by Professor Yunus’s indefatigability (to borrow a mis-used term). Fifty social businesses later, he’s still hungry for the next start-up. These final words stick with me:

“Social business is problem-solving business….. Every time I see a social problem, I set up a business to solve it.”

Inspiring stuff for all of us trying to make a difference through social business.

Leeds Empties – plans for the next few months

We had some good news last week – our application to Leeds City Council’s Transition Fund was successful – which means we have £10,000 to help us to develop Leeds Empties further over the next few months.

If you’ve read previous posts you may remember that we were initially looking for £50,000, from a range of sources, to develop Leeds Empties. We knew that was always going to be tough, but there’s nothing wrong with thinking big is there? So £10,000 means that – as we have done so far – we’ll be developing things on a shoestring budget. But we’re confident we can make some real progress by next April.

Alongside the £10,000, there’s an important, clear commitment from the Council to continue to work with us to develop Leeds Empties – the idea is that our range of services will sit alongside what the Council currently offers – so that empty home owners are helped in a range of ways to bring their home back into use.

So what will we get up to over the next few months? Basically, we are looking to try out a range of ways in which we can help more people to bring more empty homes back into use in Leeds. To give you an idea, here are a few of the things we’ll be focusing on:

Empty Homes Doctor – we’re aiming to work intensively with at least 15 empty home owners over the next 3 or 4 months to help them to bring their homes back into use. Who they are – and exactly how we’ll help – we don’t know yet. But the idea is that we’ll sit down with people to understand the reasons why they’re currently unable to bring their home back into use. Then we’ll help them to explore a range of options for bringing their home back into use. Options might include working with a local social enterprise to renovate and rent out the home, or they may wish to consider other ways to rent out or sell their home. Our role won’t be to advise – rather to help them to consider options that are available to them – many of which they may not be currently aware.

Support new and existing self-help and social ventures: we’re lucky that we’ve got some great social enterprises working on empty homes in Leeds – people like Canopy, LATCH and Gipsil. We want to do what we can to help them do more of what they do – whilst also encouraging new social ventures to set up in Leeds.

So we’ll be talking to existing social enterprises to see if there are ways we can help – and we’ll also be keeping an eye out for enterprising ways to bring more empty homes back into use. This week I’ll be at the Empty Homes Conference in London on Monday – and from there I’m heading to Triodos in Bristol to find out more about Bristol Together – a social enterprise that works with ex-offenders to bring empty homes back into use. We’re keen to explore lots of ideas – and to find people in Leeds who might wish to take some of these ideas – or things they’ve come up with themselves – further.

Attract funding and investment into empty homes in Leeds: we’ll do what we can to attract more money into Leeds. We’re talking to a range of social investors and funders – people we know who are on the look-out for enterprising approaches to solving this big social problem. So we’re in contact with organisations including Triodos, Key Fund, Ecology Building Society and an intermediary who works with Big Society Capital. We’re also looking into other ways that we could attract investment. Could local people crowd-fund the renovation of a number of empty homes? Or might community share issues work? And how can we make sure Leeds makes the most of the National Empty Homes Loan Fund?

Engage more people in bringing empty homes back into use in Leeds: one of big successes with the Call To Action was that we attracted a wide range of people to the event – including more than 20 local businesses who pledged money, skills and time to bringing more empties back into use.

We want to do far more of this. A new website will give practical information about how to get involved, and we’re also running an event in February with the RSA and Leeds City Council to engage more people in practical ways to bring empties back into use. Then in March, we plan to host a Leeds Empties Week in empty premises in the centre of Leeds – with a range of events to raise awareness of the empty homes issue – and to focus on ways that together we can bring homes back into use.

So it’s going to be a busy few months. Over the next ten days we’ll tidy up the Leeds Empties site so that we can keep you updated and involved. In the meantime I’ll blog here about what we’re up to – including the Empty Homes Conference tomorrow and the Bristol Together event on Wednesday.

As always, if you want to get involved, please get in touch with us.

Leeds Empties & The Great British Property Scandal

This one minute video, produced by Tiger Aspect, the people behind George Clarke’s Channel 4 series The Great British Property Scandal – will give you a feel for our Leeds Empties Call To Action:

And let’s not forget we also made it onto BBC Look North – empty homes was the lead story on Look North all day – and I made my debut on the sofa with Harry and Christa:

You can read more about the Call To Action – and what we’ve done since – on this post. This guest post on the Great British Property Scandal site, alongside the Leeds Empties microsite will also give you some background info.

Where are we up to now? We’ve spent the last few months developing some of the ideas that were explored at the Call To Action – and we’ve come up with the ten point plan for bringing more empty homes back into use.

In summary, we want to try out a range of approaches – working alongside the Council’s empty homes team – and working closely with some of the great social enterprises, like LATCH, Canopy and Gipsil who already bring empty homes back into use.

Our main proposed service – an Empty Homes Doctor – will see us working intensively, on a one-to-one basis, with people who find themselves with an empty home (perhaps through an inheritance) but who don’t know what to do with it. We reckon our approach, over time, can help to bring back into use hundreds more Leeds empty homes. And as a result, more Leeds people will have a decent place to call home, and fewer Leeds communities will be blighted by houses that are eyesores and magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Other things we want to do include working with social investors and funders to bring more money into Leeds for empty homes, finding ways to do green retrofits of empties in Leeds, alongside work to make sure that we make the most of job & apprenticeship opportunities in empty homes refurbishment.

It’s not been easy to get funding or investment – and as a result we’ve made slower progress than we’d hoped. But, with a fair wind, we reckon we’ll secure some initial investment in the next few weeks to try out the Empty Homes Doctor service and some of the other ideas we’ve got – such as finding ways to secure further investment for empty homes refurbishment in Leeds. Then, a few months down the line, we’ll have a good idea as to what works – and we’ll look to expand the service across Leeds.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please leave a comment below or get in touch with us – or follow me on Twitter. We reckon Leeds has got what it takes to bring hundreds more empties back into use as homes, and we’d love to have you involved!

Leeds Empties – we’re ready for investment

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, a social enterprise I set up a couple of years ago with Gill Coupland to bring people together to find enterprising solutions to some of our big social problems.

We came up with a new way of working this year.  We developed a five-stage process for making progress on whatever social issue we were focusing on:

  1. Look for clues – researching, understanding the issue we want to solve
  2. Create a buzz – get people engaged through using traditional and social media
  3. Get together – gather together a wide range of people at a Call To Action
  4. Build momentum – take ideas explored at the Call To Action and develop them
  5. Make things happen -­‐ achieve sustainable social change through supporting social ventures to grow

The first issue we decided to focus on was empty homes in Leeds.  We’d seen George Clarke’s programme on TV talking about empty homes being a scandal.  And, like most of you, we’d wandered around our city’s streets, spotting empty homes and wondering how on earth they could stay empty for so long.  Who owned them?  Why were they empty?  How would we go about getting them back into use?

So we looked for clues and we created a fair bit of buzz – including this full page feature in the Yorkshire Post.  And George Clarke got in touch to say he’d love to come to our Call To Action.  That, as you can imagine, created a lot more buzz – and before we knew it 100 people had signed up to come to our Call To Action.

And what a day it was.  We’d done all of this for free – and countless other people had chipped in with their free time, their venue, their contacts and lots more.  100 people  – including property professionals, senior Council staff (including the Chief Exec), social entrepreneurs, campaigners and people looking to buy their first home – came together for a day to think creatively about how to get more of our empty properties back into use as homes.  It was a brilliant day, which also got tonnes of media coverage, including this in the YEP and this on BBC Look North (my TV debut).

And if you’re still not convinced, have a look at what people said about the Call To Action on Twitter

That was in May.  What happened next? The truth is that whilst I can now confidently point you to our “five stage process” (outlined above) we were, in reality, making things up as we went along.  We knew we needed to do something to help turn the ideas that were explored at the Call To Action into real, live, interventions which would help bring hundreds more empties back into use.  We just didn’t know what that something would look like.

But that’s OK.  If we knew, we – or someone else – would have already done it.  The whole point of our approach – which is essentially about bringing other people together who know far more about an issue than we do, and who are better placed than we are to solve it – is that we don’t know the answers yet.  But together we can find them….

So we’ve spent the last six months talking to people, listening to people, continuing to look for clues and to put some meat on the bare bones of the ideas that were explored on that sunny day at Greenhouse in May.

What we’ve come up with is a plan for prototyping Leeds Empties.  We want to learn by doing – and we want to learn quickly.  We’ve identified ten areas of work that we believe – having talked to a lot of people – could make a real dent in the numbers of empty homes in Leeds.  Here they are:

  1. Communicating with the right people
  2. Empty Homes Doctor – intensive one to one support for empty home owners
  3. Development of business models and investment vehicles
  4. Private sector engagement – Civic Enterprise
  5. Understand and review current Leeds City Council empty homes processes
  6. Opportunities for green retrofit of empty homes
  7. Support for new and existing self-help schemes and social ventures
  8. Identify and secure funding and investment for Leeds empty homes
  9. Identify work, volunteering, training and apprenticeship opportunities
  10. Explore how to get involved in Leeds City Council’s locality based approach

It’s probably hard for you to grasp exactly what we mean by all of this.  I’ll try to explain it more over the coming weeks.  But, in essence, we want to get stuck into the detail of each of these areas of work over the next six months, so we can work out what might work best in Leeds.  

And then, six months down the line, we believe we will have a much better sense of what Leeds Empties can be.  Which is when we can go for some serious investment – which we believe will pay huge dividends – more decent homes, more jobs and training opportunities, fewer communities blighted by derelict houses, and much, much more.

For now, we need just over £50,000 to prototype Leeds Empties for six months.  So this is an open call to anyone who can help us to make Leeds Empties work.  We’d love to hear from social investors, philanthropists, Trusts, and whoever else who could invest in our prototype.  Please get in touch if you’re interested. We’d love to tell you more.

Part of a thriving ecosystem? Or extinct by the summer?

There’s much talk at the moment in the world of social business, innovation and investment about the need to create a thriving ecosystem. I understand that to mean an environment within which the social ventures that we want to encourage are best able to start up and grow.

All sounds good. I assume the kind of thing we mean when we talk about an ecosystem includes effective, responsive business support, appropriate finance and, in general terms, a supportive environment within which to do social business.

Our business, Social Business Brokers CIC, supports people to set up and run social ventures. We do that, primarily, by working with people to explore ideas, get set up and keep on going. Traditionally third parties (such as Local Authorities) have paid us to offer free support to whoever they want to encourage.

We think most of the time we do good stuff. But in the last twelve months we found ourselves becoming increasingly restless. We were conscious that it was becoming ever-more difficult to do good quality work. Existing contracts demanded more outcomes for less money. New bits of work were increasingly elusive. And whilst we did good stuff, and got lots of nice feedback from people we worked with, we weren’t satisfied. We knew, deep down, that we weren’t having as much positive impact as we could be.

So we came up with a bit of a plan. We decided to try out a few different ways of supporting social ventures. The big idea was to focus on a series of specific social issues. Previously we’d worked with just about anyone and everyone who had a social enterprise idea. We thought focusing a bit more – specialising perhaps – might help.

So we identified a few issues:

that we felt could benefit from some innovative, socially enterprising thinking
that we knew a bit about/could quickly learn about
that we thought had potential for developing sustainable social ventures
that we cared about
that other people seemed to care about too

We started with empty homes. We’d read about the 15,000 empty homes in Leeds. We’d seen George Clarke on the telly. We knew 27,000 people were on Council waiting lists. So after a bit of thinking we came up with our Call To Action – an attempt to bring together all the people in Leeds – innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, funders, door-openers, encouragers – who could help us to make a significant dent in the number of long-term empty homes in Leeds.

The response was overwhelming. I can honestly say that in all the time I’ve supported social businesses I’ve never experienced such a positive response. People cared about the issue – but they also seemed to like the approach. And it’s created a real buzz around empty homes that, we reckon, could help us to stimulate approaches which will see hundreds more Leeds homes brought back into use.

There’s lots more to do. We need to make sure we get all the right people at the Call To Action – and we need to do work to make sure that Leeds is the best city in the country for doing up empty homes. And then we need to encourage sustainable social ventures to develop.

The aim is that we’ll get paid for doing this kind of work – identifying a social issue – understanding it – stimulating interest in it – bringing the right people together – and then making things happen. But this is where it starts to get complicated…..

Because the big question is: who will pay? Our theory is that we identify a key stakeholder or stakeholders for each social issue – people who want to see significant progress on solving that particular social problem. We ask them to pay us for doing the kind of creative stuff that we’ve outlined above. We think that theory is a good one. But up to now it’s just a theory. Because no-one’s stumped up any cash yet.

Things might change in the next couple of weeks. We’re looking for sponsors for the Call To Action. We’re charging a small fee for people to come along (next time we’ll charge more). And we’re talking to some people who might put in some cash. But I wouldn’t bet my house on us being successful – because, as you all know, money is very tight.

Money is tight, and there also appears to be a reluctance for anyone to pay for business support at the moment. Conversations with people who know more about the world of social investment than I do suggest that it’s hard to work out who will pay for the “social venture intermediaries” – the people like us. Investors would prefer most of their cash to go to the people they want to invest in. New ventures aren’t always the best source of income either. And whilst we’re open to the idea of taking equity stakes in new businesses we support, that feels like a long-term income source. Or maybe a form of payment on the never-never.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone owes me a living. But I also think that what we do matters. In setting up our social enterprise we’ve each taken a fair amount of personal financial risk -primarily doing lots of speculative work in the hope of future success. The hundreds of hours we’ve put into empty homes so far have all been unpaid. That was our decision, and we’re fine with that – but you can only do that for so long.

We’ve given ourselves till the summer. I think there’s every chance that our Empty Homes Call To Action will help us work out how to make a big difference supporting social ventures – whilst also making money. But I also think there’s a good chance that no-one will think that this particular Leeds-based social venture intermediary is worth putting significant money into. We’ll see.

Tackling prisoner re-offending – should we get involved?

I do most of my work these days through Social Business Brokers, the social enterprise I set up in 2010 with fellow Leeds social entrepreneur Gill Coupland, founder of Angels Community Enterprises.

We’ve decided to change how we work this year to focus on particular social issues.  Issues that we think matter.  Issues where we think there’s a need for some socially enterprising thinking, and where we think there are opportunities to develop social ventures.

The main issue we’ve focused on so far is empty homes – based around a Call To Action that we’ve organised for the middle of May.  But, on a smaller scale, we’re looking at other issues too.  One we looked at today was prisoner re-offending.

We decided to look into this issue after reading some stats about the re-offending rates at our local prison.  More than 60% of prisoners who are released this month will be back inside within 12 months.  That’s an incredible loss of human potential, not to mention a massive cost to us all with regards to the cost of imprisonment and the personal and financial costs of crime.

We also heard about a Payment By Results trial at Leeds prison – so we decided that we’d see if we could get a few people together to explore the issue in a bit more detail.

Eight of us got together for a couple of hours this morning.  The format was simple:

  • What do we know and believe about prisoner re-offending?  What do we need to find out?
  • What do we think needs to change?
  • What opportunities exist/can we create to change things?
  • What are we going to do next – and can we do that together?

The discussion was really interesting.  We had a mix of people whose day job was to do with prisoners or offenders – whilst the majority of people were interested in this issue – and keen to work out if there were ways that they and their organisations could make a difference.

It’s hard to summarise the conversation, but it’s fair to say that there was a good amount of discussion about the need – in an ideal world – to tackle causes as well as symptoms.  We talked about some interesting initiatives we’d heard about – particularly around employment and skills – but also questioned whether isolated initiatives can make much difference – without a more profound rethinking of the prison system, and its balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

We then discussed what we might do.  Some ideas emerged – again a fair few with an employment and skills focus.  I’m sure plenty more would have been developed if we’d had more than the couple of hours that we’d given ourselves.

I left not knowing whether this was an issue that we would work more on.  Let me explain my thinking.  I think this is an issue where there is a massive need for social innovation.  And, on the face of it, there appear to be opportunities emerging to do things a bit differently.  Leeds Prison has shortlisted half-a-dozen providers (one of whom joined us today) for the Payment By Results pilot.  Other prisons are thinking of different ways to reduce re-offending.

Yet there’s a part of my that wonders how much of a difference we could make.  Politically, it feels like a tough one.  The political narrative – informed by much popular opinion – is that the role of prison is to punish.  And of course that’s an important role.  But that narrative doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative thinking around how we make sure that people don’t just end up offending again when they come out of prison.

Similarly, I worry about how effective initiatives like the Payment By Results pilot at Leeds will be.  It’s telling that all of the six shortlisted providers at Leeds are Work Programme providers.  The very same Work Programme that I – and countless others – have criticised for sidelining smaller organisations like many of the social enterprises that we work with.  Experience suggests that I shouldn’t expect the Ministry of Justice to learn much from the Department of Work and Pensions – particularly when the DWP doesn’t seem to think there’s much wrong with the Work Programme.

There’s also the issue about how hard it can be to engage with a big beast of an organisation like a prison.  I’ve rung the Prison – to speak to a specific, named person, four times in the past week.  I still haven’t been able to talk to – or even leave a message for – the person who, Leeds Chamber would have you believe – is running a groundbreaking programme of engagement with the Leeds business community.  We waste a lot of time working at the pace of people in the more bureaucratic wings of the public sector.  To be honest we can’t continue to waste that amount of time chasing opportunities.

So I’m a bit torn.  Do we engage with one or more of the shortlisted Prime Providers at Leeds – to see how we can connect them with innovative local organisations?  Or do we take the judgment that the kind of people we work with are better left out of a Payment By Results pilot which – you’d fear – would put them under severe financial pressure as risk is passed down the supply chain?

We’ll see how things go over the next few weeks.  Maybe our meeting – and the discussions opening up as a result – will see us getting more involved in this issue. Maybe I’ll finally chat with the guy at the Prison.   Or maybe we’ll decide it’s one issue where we can’t make much difference.

But if that’s the case, isn’t that a wasted opportunity – and shouldn’t people like those who joined us today have a decent opportunity to change the prison system for good?

Me, #occupy, #socent and the 99 per cent

I was in town this morning for a very productive meeting with a friend who’s a local GP to help me explore potential opportunities for social enterprises (aka #socent on Twitter) if GPs end up directly commissioning services.

We’d spotted earlier in the day that Billy Bragg was going to be at Occupy Leeds in City Square at midday, so we wandered across after our meeting finished.

I love Billy Bragg.  I think kids in 50 years time will study his lyrics in the way that we studied war poets.  And there is a coherence and clarity to his view of the world which I find hugely inspiring (even though I’m the first to admit I’m not a socialist).  So it was good to hear a few songs and listen to what he had to say about the importance of the Occupy movement.

It was the first time I’ve been down to Occupy Leeds.  I took a passing interest when Occupy Wall Street started, and got a bit more interested when people attempted to occupy the London Stock Exchange.  But it really caught my  imagination when the protest moved to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

I thought the symbolism was brilliant, and could immediately see how moving the protest to the steps of a Christian church was likely to lead to something quite interesting.  But of course I couldn’t have anticipated how much it would shake up the hierarchy at St Paul’s and in the wider Church.

I’m a conflicted, uncomfortable Roman Catholic, born into a Catholic family.  I wouldn’t actively choose to be a Catholic now, but it’s the tradition I’ve been brought up in and it’s where, in lots of ways, I belong.  I also value in some ways the sense of discomfort that it brings me.  But I have no time for the hierarchy of the Church, and I struggle with a lot of its teaching.  Yet I find a niche within it – informed mainly by my year in Ecuador with a social project steeped in liberation theology – that keeps me hanging in there.

It was my patchy understanding of liberation theology that sparked my interest in the protest at St Paul’s.   I was pretty sure that Jesus would be outside in one of the tents, sitting with the people whose demands may be incoherent but who are saying something profound about social justice.  I also thought that the kind of church leader who inspires me – someone like the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Romero – would be out there with them too.

So that was my way in to the Occupy movement. But I’d be lying if I said I felt that I was part of that movement.  When I was down at City Square this afternoon I found it too easy to tell myself that the people there – camping, speaking, waving banners were people not like me.  I accept that’s not particularly helpful, but it was my honest response.  Got a beard?  Probably not like me.  Read Socialist Worker?  Not like me.  Look vaguely “alternative” in any of the ways that we like to compartmentalise other people?  Not like me. Got a desire to camp outside in the freezing cold at City Square?  Not like me. And there were lots of people there who, I told myself privately, were “not like me”.

But I think that’s the challenge, both to me and to the rest of us – both those who do currently feel totally part of the Occupy movement – and those like me who are intrigued by it and who see how important it is at this moment in time.  And that’s why I think the We Are The 99% slogan is so clever and so powerful.  Because in my opinion we – the vast majority of the world who are at the mercy of modern capitalism (and the vast majority of the world are doing far worse out of it than I am) – need to see that all of us are ill-served by the current economic system.  There has to be a better way.  If we don’t find one, the only question will be whether it’s economic collapse or environmental catastrophe that gets us first.

So I think with time we need to all see ourselves as the 99% – a diverse, engaged and not so engaged, political and apolitical, religious and non-religious, “alternative” and “mainstream” group of people.  So, speaking personally, I can be part of a movement that aims to make the world a much better place than it currently is.  Me, with my lack of political upbringing, my complicated relationship with Christianity, my lack of desire to take part in protests, my interest in finding business opportunities that deliver social change, my pragmatism, and my messy contradictions.  I see myself as part of the 99 per cent now.  Do you?

Who pays for better mental health?

We had an interesting round table discussion with two of the leading thinkers and do-ers in the worlds of social enterprise and mental health yesterday – Mark Brown and David Floyd.

Mark is editor of leading mental health magazine One in Four, whilst David runs Social Spider – the social enterprise, which, amongst other things, publishes One in Four.  David also writes what in my opinion is the best UK blog on social enterprise, Beanbags and Bullsh!t.  Well worth a read if you want an honest, front-line take on the world of social business.

We’d invited Mark and David to Leeds because we’ve been chatting to various people over the last few months about exploring new ways to support people with a mental health need.  And, just as importantly, exploring ways that people can help themselves.  Mark and David had written a thinkpiece about the potential for a Big Society approach to helping people to improve people’s mental health – so we were keen to hear more.  The thinkpiece is excellent (but not available online yet) and yesterday’s discussion was fascinating.

I’m no expert in the field of mental health – I’m just someone who cares about this stuff and is interested in trying to work out how to do things better.  But it strikes me that some of the things that can contribute to a person’s improved mental health and sense of wellbeing could include:

  • Active involvement in the development and delivery of the support that they receive and the opportunity to influence things (you might call that co-production)
  • Support from and contact with peers – people who are – or who have been – in a similar situation – with an emphasis on self-help and peer support
  • Appropriate, non-institutionalised, personalised services
  • A sense that they matter – they’re not just a statistic in a faceless world of health and social care

    So, with that in mind, you can imagine how an approach – which you might call Big Society – could work.  People setting things up themselves to support eachother.  Local charities and social enterprises setting up services which are funded through contracts and charges to paying customers.  All sounds great doesn’t it?

    Except the discussion yesterday – whilst highlighting the potential of a Big Society approach – also emphasised the barriers that are in place if more of this stuff is to happen.  Fundamentally, it comes down to money.  Where is the money in the mental  health field?  Much of it stays within the NHS and the local authority.  Some of it goes out through contracts – to deliver pre-determined outcomes, tightly monitored through Key Performance Indicators.  And a bit of it – if you’re lucky – might go on innovative, local, risky, do-it-yourself initiatives.

    And please don’t tell me that Personal Budgets could fund this kind of thing.  They could – in theory – and should.  But our experience – and increasing amounts of evidence such as this report into Personal Budget pilots in Scotland – suggest that few people with a mental health need are getting support which is different in a meaningful way through a Personal Budget.

    Locally, we’re hearing that the local authority will approve a Personal Budget to cover someone’s transport costs to get to an activity (which could be a Big Society, DIY, self-help/peer support activity) – but they won’t pay for the activity itself.  So how is the service supposed to develop?  And, given that many people with a mental health need are on pretty minimal benefits, they will tend to struggle to pay for that activity.

    Solutions?  I doubt there are any quick fixes.  But, as always, the starting point needs to be an honest assessment of where things are.  Big Society approaches aren’t going to magically spring up out of thin air.  If the State decides that more of this kind of thing should happen, then we need to invest in it.  In Leeds we’ve made a start with the Ideas That Change Lives investment fund, which has teamed up with UnLtd to offer support to people with good ideas.  It’s a good start, but we need plenty more.

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